L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, January 27, 2012

The things that lodge in your brain...and repeat

We talked about growing old gracefully
And Elsie who's seventy-four
Said [with a strong Mid-western twang], 'A, it's a question of being sincere,
And B, if you're supple you've nothing to fear',
Then she swung upside down from a glass chandelier.
I couldn't have liked it more.

From the Noël Coward song, "I've Been to a Marvelous Party", of course. Which I performed once or twice in the eighties, speak-singing the thing, as Coward would have done. I'm sure I was quite unable to pull off; I haven't got the stuff to put over that sort of business now, and I certainly didn't have it then. Of all the song's very droll lyrics - which I still remember fairly well - these are the ones that will just pop into my head. Again and again. From nowhere. And I'll speak-sing them out loud, if given any opportunity.

The stage direction for the Mid-western twang - or what I imagine one to be - is my little invention. The rest is done in a rather vague approximation of an icy British accent. Maybe it's the earthiness of Elsie's twang that tickles me so, and sets the fragment on repeat in my brain. Or that it's some genuine inspiration of mine in the midst of my pale imitation of a Cowardian delivery. Maybe, in my mind, it somehow makes up for my perceived inability to "sell" the rest of the song"; if I can't channel Noël, I can still damn well do Elsie.

Like most - maybe all - of the names of the people listed in the song, "Elsie" was based on an actual person in society at the time. She was the celebrated interior designer Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl. Quite the marvelous self-creation, herself. You can read more about her on my friend Stephen Rutledge's excellent blog.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dogs gathering wings

In my dream last night, we were at someone's house doing I don't know what. There were a lot of dogs running around being social, Nicholas among them. At some point G and I noticed that we hadn't seen him for a while. Being the nervous/good parents we are, we separated and went to look for him. I saw several dogs that looked quite a bit like Nicholas. I would be momentarily fooled, then notice that the dog wasn't wearing a green collar.

Eventually, I found Nicholas and his green collar standing in the sun under some trellis-like structure at the side of the house. There was a stack of wood or some other thing on the ground between us. As I was stepping over or around it, something changed and, when I looked up, Nicholas was now a small green bird, and my sister-in-law Sharon was holding him. She was standing under the trellis with foliage behind her and Nicholas was perched on her left hand, her right hand cupped protectively over him. She smiled and handed him toward me. As I took him, he changed again. Now he was a green butterfly, fluttering in my cupped hands. I stood there in the sun holding him - below my chin, above my chest - my hands only circling his fluttering, not really constraining him. I felt such joy in this moment, such wonder at this beautiful creature, such immense love for this green fluttering at my throat.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Of music, souls, and les Russes

I always listen to music while I'm painting. Have to have it. Otherwise I get too antsy; I'm more than a bit ADD-ish. I almost always listen to vocal music, though. Opera and operetta, yes, but mostly show tunes, movie music. Something I can sing along to. Otherwise, I have a tendency to start thinking about stress-making nonsense, stewing about petty, annoying things in my life, real and imagined. But once language is involved, I can't go to that place. If I'm warbling along - in any language, really - my mind disengages and I can really relax and focus and enjoy my work. Singing makes painting much better.

But I surprised myself recently. G and I bought movies for each other for Christmas, one of which was a big box set of Gone With the Wind. We watched it Christmas evening, and on my next painting day, I put on a CD of Max Steiner's music for the film. Then I shuffled a bunch of recordings of the great classic film scores of Steiner, Korngold, Waxman, Rozsa, Alfred Newman. It's wonderful, evocative music - and my jittery, troublesome brain did not take me into any unpleasant corners. I had several days of delighted painting!

Emboldened, yesterday I did something I've had in the back of mind for a while now. At least half of my music collection is "classical". Mostly Orchestral. But because my music-listening-time is almost always also painting-time, I'm not listening to that sort of thing much these days. I miss it. I've certainly missed my beloved Rachmaninov. So yesterday, straight through, I listened to all three of his symphonies and all four piano concertos. Then I listened to the second symphony again, the piece of music I love above all others. I don't know if it's just a coincidence - and I know it helped tremendously that the sun shone all day - but it was one of the most productive painting days I've had in months. I thank you Sergei Vasilievich.


When G and I were first emailing back and forth to each other, and came to the topic of family heritage I told her that, though I was Irish and German on my father's side and mostly English on my mother's, I couldn't relate to any of that. (I've never been able to connect with that most obvious genealogical ingredient, the conspicuously Irish name be damned.) I told her that, really, I considered myself to be have a "French and Russian soul". What a preposterous thing to say! I adore France and all things French, but a French soul? I haven't much idea of what that might be. Of a Russian soul I could presume even less. I've read and read about Russia and Russians, but it's actually only the Russia from, say, about 1780 until 'round about 1918. It's a Russia of the Arts, and those with the wealth and position to indulge the Arts. Aristocrats and Emperors. And the Russia I've internalized is that of the ones who fled the revolution, the émigrés, the well-educated, sophisticated nobility, who so often wrote beautifully crafted and persuasive memoirs of their own Atlantis. That's the only Russia I know.

And yet, if you love something dearly, doesn't it become a part of you? And if the thing you love is so much a part of a culture or a time that would otherwise be foreign to you, don't you bond with that foreignness in some way, as well? I love all of Rachmaninov's work, and his second symphony has been my official "favorite" piece of music for my entire adult life. I remember hearing it for the first time; I was staying at the house of friends and they had a recording of it. I connected with it immediately and completely.

Rachmaninov was a part of that chimerical Russia I've read about since I was a child. He was born there, lived and worked there, and was forced to leave that Russia. And, for me, his music precisely expresses that very particular lost world. That Russia. I don't know if there's any of the actual Russia in me, anything of a generalized Russian temperament. Probably not. But the musical evocation of time and place that I feel in Rachmaninov's second symphony - for me, his greatest work - is a part of me. And most definitely is a part of my soul.

Rachmaninov's Symphony No.2, Op.27 - 3rd movement.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Anonymously immortal

It's no news that G and I watch old movies...all the time. One of the things I enjoy most is noticing the various supporting players, bit players, and even extras who you can spot in film after film.* Hollywood, in the 30s especially, seemed to be a surprisingly small world. With the thousands of actors clambering to get ahead, I find it rather remarkable that the same relative few were getting all the work.

We have a box set of the most famous of the Busby Berkeley films: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, the Gold Diggers series, etc. For years now, G and I have commented on a particular chorus girl/extra that we see again and again in several of his movies. She's often seen waiting, off-stage or on-, during auditions or rehearsals. But most of the time she's part of the big production numbers. And she's frequently featured in those famous Berkeley "pretty-girl close-ups". And the odd thing, one of the things that makes her stand out, is that she's not actually that pretty. And her figure certainly isn't perfect; her ankles aren't as slim as one might expect. We've always wondered how she ended up so prominently displayed. Was she someone's friend, someone's girlfriend? Berkeley's girlfriend? So far, we've only heard her utter a few words. In Footlight Parade's Shanghai Lil number she has the most to say; she's one of the prostitutes sitting at the gin joint bar, lamenting Lil's bad influence on the world's oldest profession. Her lyrics are, "That Oriental - dame is detrimental - to our industry."

We always figured we'd never know who she was, always wonder about her life and how it played out. We'd always look for her, wondering. But last night, for the hell of it, G googled that line from the song. And now - quite unexpectedly - she has a name. Donna Mae Roberts.

From IMDB:

Date of birth: 4 November, 1912, Los Angeles, California
Date of death: 1 October, 1996, Gardnerville, Nevada

Donna Mae Roberts was born in Los Angeles. She was the daughter of Walter Roberts and Cora H. Myers. She went to the University of California, where she majored in psychology and belonged to two honorary scholastic fraternities. She left her classes at the end of her junior year to join the chorus. Donna Mae Roberts started as a "Goldwyn girl" in movies, and was a chorus girl in several of the Busby Berkeley movies. She also played small parts in Warner Brothers movies of the 1930s.

Donna Mae Roberts had the highest intelligence quotient of 54 chorus girls given a bona fide test by Prof. Neil Warren of the University of Southern California. Her IQ rating was 132, which falls in the "near genius" class. After the test, Donna Mae Roberts was acclaimed as: "The smartest chorus girl in Hollywood".

Donna Mae Roberts career started to decline in the late 1930s. During that period she did some extra work and then retired from the screen.

Her first husband was Paul Spark, who died in 1943. Her second was Robert Roderick; she had a son by this second marriage.

Donna Mae Roberts died at the Cottonwood Care Center in Gardnerville in 1996. Her body was cremated at Fitzhenry's Crematory.


She worked on her first film in 1932. Between 1933 and 1936 she appeared in an astonishing twenty-four films. At least six of them were with Berkeley. She worked once in 1937, and her last job was working with Berkeley again on The Gang's All Here in 1943, apparently the same year her first husband died. Though the earlier Berkeley films were all at Warners, she doesn't appear to have been under contract to a studio. It looks as though she worked for most of them; she worked on a Harlow film at MGM, which we haven't seen, and at RKO in Astaire and Rogers' Roberta.

In the Honeymoon Hotel number in Footlight Parade.

In 27 films not once did she receive screen credit. She never got to see her name up on the screen. IMDB lists all of her film work as "uncredited". Which seems so sadly dismissive. And yet, because several of the movies she contributed to have become classics of the art form, preserved as historically and artistically important, are iconic, and because she is so visible in them, she's achieved her own level of immortality. Time has given her that elusive screen credit...and we salute you, Donna Mae.


In her first film, Eddie Cantor's The Kid From Spain. She's center right. Center left is better known movie chorus girl, Toby Wing.

Bottom right, in her second film, 42nd Street, beaming at star Warner Baxter. That's Toby Wing, again, top right.

And all wet, front right, in Footlight Parade's famous By a Waterfall.

Certainly, the high point of her career, she was the pinnacle of the revolving wedding-cake fountain of glittering
"dames" that was the finale of Waterfall, one of the greatest - and most audacious - moments in film history.


* (G is very indulgent as I constantly pause movies and say, "Oh, isn't that _ who was in _ ?", "Didn't we see him/her in _ ?" And then I get out my phone, go to IMDB, and look it up to see if I'm right. And I hate to brag, but my batting average is pretty damned impressive.)